William Knox D'Arcy

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William Knox D'Arcy
William Knox D'Arcy.jpg
Born(1849-10-11)11 October 1849
Newton Abbot, England
Died1 May 1917(1917-05-01) (aged 67)
Middlesex, England
NationalityEnglish, British
EducationWestminster School
Spouse(s)Elena Birkbeck (m. 1872)

William Knox D'Arcy (11 October 1849 – 1 May 1917) was a British businessman who was one of the principal founders of the oil and petrochemical industry in Persia (Iran). Concession to explore, obtain, and market oil, natural gas, asphalt, and ozokerite was given to him and the concession known as the D’Arcy Concession in Iran.[1]

Early life[edit]

He was born in Newton Abbot, England, the son of a solicitor. He attended Westminster School until 1866, when the family emigrated to Australia following his father's bankruptcy, settling in Rockhampton, Queensland. D'Arcy continued his studies and chose to follow law, later joining his father's business. He did well and began to speculate, initially in land.

He married Elena Birkbeck of Rockhampton at St Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta on 23 October 1872.[2] Elena was born in Mexico in 1840, the only daughter of Damiana de Barre Valdez and Samuel Birkbeck, a mining engineer from Illinois in the United States, who was in Mexico managing a silver mine. He was descended from the English Birkbecks, a Quaker family with an interest in education.[3]

Mining in Australia and New Zealand[edit]

Walter Hall and D'Arcy ~1885

In 1882 he became a partner, with Walter Russell Hall and Thomas Skarratt Hall, in a syndicate with Thomas, Frederick and Edwin Morgan when they opened a mine on Ironstone Mountain (later renamed Mount Morgan), in Queensland, 24 miles (39 km) south of Rockhampton. There was a significant deposit at Mount Morgan Mine. In October 1886, the syndicate became the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company, with D'Arcy a director and the largest shareholder. He held 125,000 shares in his own name and 233,000 in trust. At one stage the shares reached £17/1s/- each, making them worth more than £6 million (an amount equivalent to £673 million in present-day terms[4]). The company also worked a rich gold mine at Matakanui, Central Otago, New Zealand, through its subsidiary the Mount Morgan Sluicing Company.

Oil exploration in Persia[edit]

In 1889, with a substantial fortune, D'Arcy and his family moved to England, where he bought the Stanmore Hall mansion, Bylaugh Park, and a house on Grosvenor Square. His wife, Elena, died in 1897 and, in 1899, he married Nina Boucicault (a first cousin of her namesake, celebrated Irish stage and film actress Nina Boucicault), with whom he lavishly entertained guests. He had acquired a strong interest in horse-racing while in Australia, and maintained a private box at Epsom racecourse.

In 1900, he agreed to fund a search for oil and minerals in Persia headed by Wolff, Ketabchee and Cotte. Negotiations with the Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar began in 1901, and with the offer of £20,000 (£2.2 million today),[4] for a sixty-year concession to explore for oil— later, the D'Arcy concession —was secured in May, covering 480,000 square miles (1,200,000 km2), and stipulated that D'Arcy would have the oil rights to the entire country except for five provinces in Northern Iran. In exchange, the Iranian government was given 16% of the oil company's annual profits, an agreement that would haunt the Iranians up until the late 20th century. After the D'Arcy concession, the British became much more concerned with the stability of Iran because of their reliance on the country's vast oil reserves.[5]

A drilling team under George B. Reynolds was sent to Persia and began to search, then, in 1903, a company was formed, and D'Arcy had to spend over £500,000 to cover the costs. False hopes were raised in 1904, and D'Arcy was forced to find further financial support, with the Burmah Oil Company Ltd. agreeing to put up to £100,000 into the venture, in return for much of the stock.

Drilling in southern Persia at Shardin continued until 1907, when the search was switched to Masjed Soleyman (Masjed-e-Sulayman in Persian مسجد سلیمان), in a place named Maydon-e-Naftune. Drilling began at one site in January 1908, and at another nearby in March. By April, with no success, the venture close to collapse, and D'Arcy almost bankrupt, he decided, with Burmah, to abandon exploration in Iran. In early May 1908, they sent Reynolds a telegram stating that they had run out of money and ordering him to "cease work, dismiss the staff, dismantle anything worth the cost of transporting to the coast for re-shipment, and come home". Reynolds delayed following these orders and in a stroke of luck, struck oil at 1,180 feet (360 m) shortly after on 26 May 1908.[6]

In April 1909, D'Arcy was appointed a director of the newly founded Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), which would later become British Petroleum (BP). By 1911, APOC had run a pipeline from the find to a refinery at Abadan. In 1912, the Mount Morgan company was listed in London, and D'Arcy was made chairman of that board.

The financial support given by Burmah Oil and the British Admiralty meant that D'Arcy could no longer put his name to the new company despite the best efforts of his wife, and so was a shareholder.[7]

Later life[edit]

Later in life he lived at Stanmore Hall, Middlesex. It was enlarged by Brightwen Binyon in 1888–91. A billiard room and new dining room were created.[8] Then he commissioned from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones a suite of tapestries, 'The Quest of the Holy Grail', that were displayed in the hall but are now dispersed.[9] He also owned paintings by Frank Dicksee and Frederick Goodall.

He died on 1 May 1917, aged 67.

D'Arcy was posthumously inducted into the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame in 2012.[10][11]


  1. ^ Abbasi, Sadegh. "Britain's Major Plunder of Iranian Oil in 1903". english.khamenei.ir. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  2. ^ John Robert Peach (2008). The Greatest-Ever Mining Swindle in the Colonies. ISBN 1-876819-77-4. William Knox D'Arcy married Damiana “Elena” Birkbeck, only daughter of ...
  3. ^ George Birkbeck, founder of the London Mechanics' Institute was a family member.
  4. ^ a b UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  5. ^ Cleveland, William L. (2004). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 144. ISBN 0-8133-4048-9.
  6. ^ Kinzer 2003, pp. 48–9.
  7. ^ Yergin, Daniel (1991). The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Pocket Books. p. 148. ISBN 0-671-79932-0.
  8. ^ Bridget Cherry, Nikolaus Pevsner London 3: North West , p. 294, at Google Books
  9. ^ "GREAT STANMORE". british-history.ac.uk. Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  10. ^ "Hall of Fame". Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame. State Library of Queensland. Archived from the original on 23 October 2018. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  11. ^ "Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame | William Knox D'Arcy(1849 – 1917)". leaders.slq.qld.gov.au. Retrieved 8 March 2017.

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